Inspiring, Chaotic, Reborn, Brand-New: The Many Lives of Art Fairs

In the mid-1960s, the German art dealer Rudolf Zwirner found that he had a big problem.

“I had a gallery in Cologne that was showing a lot of young American artists,” he said. “But no clients.” He recalled sitting in his gallery hoping that visitors would show up.

Mr. Zwirner, now 89 and based in Berlin, has been called “the man who invented the art market” by the German magazine Der Spiegel, and he is the father of David Zwirner, one of the world’s most powerful and influential dealers.

To fix his problem, Mr. Zwirner took action. “I wanted to make a meeting of galleries,” he said. “So a colleague and I decided to start an art fair.” In 1967, he joined forces with a fellow dealer, Hein Stünke, and together they showed their wares — and attracted 16 other galleries to join them. Thus Art Cologne, considered to be the oldest contemporary art fair, was born.

The next edition of the fair takes place Nov. 16-19. Last year, it had around 190 galleries, largely from Germany.

To say that the idea of contemporary art fairs took off after that first event would be an understatement. “Name a major city that doesn’t have an art fair now,” Mr. Zwirner said. His son’s gallery, for example, presented works at 18 art fairs in 2022.

Three years after Art Cologne began, Art Basel put a more international spin on the idea with its first edition in 1970, becoming a powerful art world event drawing galleries and collectors from all over the globe. (The latest edition of Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, takes place Thursday to Sunday.)

Like other creations, every art fair has a life cycle and, at 56 years old, Art Cologne has had its ups and downs. The fair’s own website refers to the period from 2008 to 2010 as years of “upheaval.”

“Art Cologne went through a period of confusion,” said Daniel Hug, the fair’s current director. “Art fairs tend to grow stale after a while.”

Since taking the lead job in 2008, Mr. Hug has worked to attract top dealers from Germany and elsewhere; last year, the fair featured Pearl Lam Galleries of Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as Kamel Mennour of Paris.

Sometimes there are other problems, beyond staleness, and a fair closes down. But new shoots can grow out of ashes.

The venerable Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, founded in 1934 and focusing on older art, helped establish June as a month for collecting in London; it remained a landmark event until it folded in 2009.

A new fair, Masterpiece London, rose in its place. The idea was to focus on “cross-collecting,” meaning that the fair would appeal to buyers of old master paintings who also enjoyed the more popular fields of contemporary art and design.

But earlier this year, MCH Group, the owner of Masterpiece as well as Art Basel, said that it was canceling this year’s edition. “Escalating costs and a decline in the number of international exhibitors mean that the event is not commercially viable this year,” the MCH statement read.

“We loved it and we did well there,” said the dealer Jonathan Green of London’s Richard Green gallery, which specializes in paintings from the 17th to the 21st centuries. “It was a bit of a shock, to be honest. It was disconcerting with no warning.”

Mr. Green added, “Fairs are difficult to get right — there are lots of moving parts.”

Stepping unto the breach this year is a new event, the Treasure House Fair, taking place June 23-26 at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the same venue once occupied by Masterpiece. Around 55 dealers will participate, many of whom formerly exhibited at Masterpiece, including Mr. Green.

Treasure House was established by two of Masterpiece’s original founders, Harry Van der Hoorn and Thomas Woodham-Smith.

“The dealers are best-in-class among their eclectic specialties,” said Mr. Woodham-Smith, who once worked at the now-defunct Mallett Antiques. “We’re going for a more relaxed and intimate atmosphere.”

He added that the fair would be high-end, but not too fancy. “Everybody is over the idea of excess,” he said. “We don’t want people to come and feel like they’re paying a premium to buy something at the fair.”

Dealers include the New York silver specialist S.J. Shrubsole and Galerie Gmurzynska, with locations in Zurich, New York and Zug, Switzerland. Gmurzynska, which specializes in modern and contemporary art, is bringing Marjorie Strider’s Pop-infused painting “Red Rose” (2010), among other works.

For his part, Mr. Green noted that when a fair is young, “You have to give it time.” The 55-dealer roster, smaller than most fairs, was fine with him for starters. “People can come and have a look, and hopefully it will grow for the next time,” he said.

For Treasure House, Mr. Green will show a selection of 20th-century artists, including Sir John Lavery’s 1926 seascape “The Beach Deauville-Morning.”

Not all new art fairs have the DNA of a previous one, and brand-new events can be appealing to collectors.

“That’s where future stars come out,” said the Miami real estate developer John Marquez, a prolific collector of contemporary work, referring to lesser-known artists.

Tokyo Gendai, a contemporary fair with 77 galleries, will present its inaugural edition at the Pacifico Yokohama convention center from July 7 to 9. It aims to capitalize on the Japanese market as well as the Asian market generally. “Gendai” means contemporary in Japanese.

Certainly the fair’s co-founder Magnus Renfrew has experience in the field. He was the founding director of Art Hong Kong in 2008, which was later reborn as Art Basel Hong Kong after being made part of Art Basel; Mr. Renfrew stayed as director until 2014.

Tokyo Gendai is being organized by the Art Assembly, which runs other fairs all around Asia — Taipei Dangdai, India Art Fair, Photofairs Shanghai and Art SG in Singapore — along with Sydney Contemporary.

“Tokyo has one of the most sophisticated cultural scenes in the world,” Mr. Renfrew said. “It has a gallery scene that’s been going for decades, strong institutions and lots of private museums.”

For collectors like Mr. Marquez, the local backdrop to an art fair matters. “The city and the fair go hand in hand,” he said. “The best fairs are in the coolest cities.”

Tokyo, he said, is among his favorite places. Mr. Marquez is the owner of a Manhattan sushi restaurant, Sushi Noz.

“I did not know about this fair,” Mr. Marquez said of Tokyo Gendai. “But I’d love to go to it sometime.” That may not happen this year, as Mr. Marquez is busy opening a foundation to show his collection in Miami, set to open this fall.

Given the many other fairs run by Art Assembly, as well as Art Basel Hong Kong and the newcomer Frieze Seoul, which had its first edition last year, the Asian fair landscape has become a lot more crowded lately.

“Asia is home to half the world’s population and many of the fastest-growing economies,” Mr. Renfrew said. “There’s more than enough room for all of us.”

Many of the galleries that plan to show at Tokyo Gendai are local, including SCAI the Bathhouse, founded in 1993. The founder of that gallery, Masami Shiraishi, said in an email that the buyers he knows were primed for a new fair with a good pedigree.

“For many new Japanese collectors who started their collection after Covid, this may be the first experience to come to an international art fair,” Mr. Shiraishi said. Among the works he plans to show is Darren Almond’s “Tsukimi” (2023), a painting in acrylic, aluminum and gold.

The gallery Sadie Coles HQ of London plans to show works by the British sculptor Sarah Lucas and the Belgium-based painter Kati Heck.

The fair also plans to have a special themed exhibition, “Life Actually: The Work of Contemporary Japanese Women Artists,” that includes Ayaka Yamamoto’s photograph “Untitled #141, Kuldiga, Latvia” (2014).

Mr. Renfrew said that in planning, one of the first steps was getting a “credible” gallery selection committee to help set the tone and encourage other top galleries to join. “It lets people know about the quality level,” he said.

Tim Blum of the gallery Blum & Poe was on the committee and will have a booth featuring the work of around 20 artists. The gallery has spaces in Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo. Mr. Blum speaks Japanese and once lived in Japan. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he said of Tokyo Gendai.

For this fair, “I am front-loading our Japan program,” he said, referring to the Japanese artists he represents. That includes showing Yukinori Yanagi’s “One Dollar New York B60208400T” (2022), a sculpture featuring ants, colored sand, a plastic box, plastic tube and plastic pipe.

Mr. Renfrew noted that organizing the fair was made easier by achieving “bonded status,” which took a year of wrangling. Normally, galleries would have to pay Japan’s 10 percent sales tax in advance, and it would be held as a deposit. Bonded status means that the dealers are exempt from that rule, and the tax is simply applied to purchases. The fair organizers say that Tokyo Gendai is the first international art fair to achieve such a waiver. “The bonded status was a huge win,” Mr. Blum said.

For his part, Mr. Zwirner has long been retired from dealing art, and he said he had not been to Art Cologne in some time. He also expressed a certain amount of astonishment at the proliferation of contemporary fairs since the experimental outing back in 1967.

As he put it, “I could never, ever have imagined.”

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